Joe and I scribble a lot of notes to each other. They’re scattered all over the house in various places. I thought I’d pull a few from our collection.
“That frog,” I told Joe, “is going to get stomped on.”
Remembering a former new age-y boss, who once confessed to me during a long Christmas shift at Waldenbooks, that he had a groundhog spirit guide, I decided to reference the frog in Ted Andrews book, Animal Speak.
According to Andrews, if a frog has presented itself, “it may be time to breathe new life into an old project or goal.”
The frog is a symbol of fertility, rebirth and resurrection. Since I’m in no hurry to get preggers, I took this is as a message to get cracking on The Book, which I realize has nothing to do with returning The Dress.
Armed with frog knowledge I took off to purchase a present for a friend in downtown St. Pete, and as usual, I passed a gaggle of bums, and as usual, one of them called out to me.
“M’am,” he croaked. “Can you spare some change so I can get ointment for my foot.”
This is a new one, I thought. Foot ointment. Surely this bum – I’ll call him Jed – has milked other ailments in the past, but foot ailments? C’mon, dude. Wear shoes and your feet won’t slough off.
I reached into my purse, pulled out a dollar bill, handed it to Jed and snapped, “That foot. Is dis-gusting.”
Jed took the dollar bill and nodded gratefully, his ruddy face creasing in the afternoon sun like an origami crane. It hit me just then, like a sack of bricks to the belly, that bums are ageless. Not ageless in the sense that they are young, but ageless in the sense that they are without an age. To those of us who pass them by, bums are just bums with no names and no ages. No numbers and letters to hang over their heads. Just time.
“Linda,” said the one saleswoman. “Get over here. You’re not gonna believe how well this dress fits.”
“Like a glove!” Squealed Linda. “Oo! We’ve been waiting for someone to buy this dress!”
“How long do I have to return it?” I asked.
“Return it?” They snapped. “Why would you return it?”
And then, two weeks later I returned it. I think the saleswomen had a bet, because when I walked in with the dress in a Target bag, the one smirked at the other like, Itoldyouso.
“Well that’s too bad,” the one woman said. “It fit you like a glove.”
On my way up 2nd Avenue I passed Ann Taylor, walked inside and purchased a fetching tweed number for the rehearsal dinner.
It was a blip of a moment in an overly air-conditioned bedroom.
Joe was wearing a souvenir alien T-shirt from Area 51. I was wearing his heaviest red sweater. We both had our glasses on, which doesn’t happen often because Joe hates wearing his glasses. He says they make him dizzy.
Stubborn, fiercely independent, and at times straight-up flighty, I couldn’t promise him that. At least not in the beginning.
When he asked me about myself, I told him how my family had installed a corn-burning furnace in the basement of their Western New York home, and how when it burned, the whole house smelled like Orville Redenbacher’s.
The second time we met, I told him I was outta here, that I was moving to Oregon or Idaho or Montana. I told him I was writing a book about a girl who spends her days righting ordinary wrongs, who makes a living on a ranch and sleeps in a hayloft that smells like manure and maple syrup.
“I have to live it if I want to write it,” I said nonchalantly.
We were at a birthday party in Sarasota, at a bar with a punching bag. I was dressed as Courtney Love – pink baby doll dress, combat boots, mascara smudges, the whole getup. The theme was “high school flashback,” and I was never so happy to resurrect the 90s. A 1993 graduate of an all-boys Jesuit high school in Tampa, Joe was wearing a too-tiny suit and tie that made him look like Ben Stiller.
I told him I was reading a memoir by Mary Karr that was written like none other I’d read before. He asked me if my novel would be a memoir and I replied that it was pompous to write a memoir at the age of 25.
“Not that what I’m writing isn’t mostly true anway,” I conceded.
I was chugging too many Miller Lites, filming the party for my roommate Zac, confessing on camera in a slurred lisp that I was fed-up with doing his dishes.
Joe drove me home that night in his blue Honda Accord. Unlike most of the cars that belonged to people I knew, his was immaculate.
We went back to our friends, Max and Meredith’s house – a beach cottage – where we drank some more, played games and ate leftover pasta from the fridge. Joe heated up a bowl of bow tie macaroni with red sauce, and in between rounds of (was it Taboo?) he offered me several spoonfuls, which I found comforting.
As we sat there on the steps leading into Max and Meredith’s 10-by-10 living room, our knees touched. Joe was still dressed in his Jesuit uniform. I was still dressed as Courtney Love. Spooning noodles out of his bowl and into my mouth, it was as if I had slopped off his plate for years. When he walked outside to have a cigarette, I stumbled out of the living room with my roommate and left. It was late and I was tired.
The third time I saw him we were on an actual date. At the urging of my roommate, who had observed our Lady and the Tramp pasta moment, I went ahead and asked Max for Joe’s phone number.
“Tell me he’s not one of those too-nice, sappy guys,” I said.
“No, but he’s not an asshole either if that’s what you’re asking,” Max replied.
For four days his number sat untouched. Written on a Post-It note and stuck to a cardboard-box-night stand by my bed, I agonized over making the first move. I was nervous. Feeling sheepish. Feeling like perhaps I drank too much that night, or that I had left coldly without saying goodbye.
When I finally called, he answered on the second ring. He knew right away who I was and why I was calling. He fired off date plans like a semi-automatic weapon, as I joked that simply willing your phone to dial on its own never works.
“Lucky for you, you picked up on the second ring,” I said. “I probably would have hung up on the third.”
This phone call was huge for me. I was still hellbent on moving to Oregon, or Idaho, or Montana. But if the way we shared pasta was any indication of things to come, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, all of it would scarcely measure up.
However, none of these moments were as compelling as the one I mentioned earlier that came two months later, a week before my Jack Kerouac-ian gallivant across the country.
We were lying on his bed – Joe in his souvenir alien T-shirt, me in his heaviest red sweater, and the pug curled up like a Roman snail beside us. He was questioning my blind love for the Dakotas. I was romanticizing The Badlands.
Reaching around my side, he kissed me somewhere near my armpit and said, “If your body were the United States, this would be South Dakota.”
Though not in agreement, I let him go on.
Next, he kissed my elbow. Called it Iowa. Then my wrist. Called it Missouri. My spine – Oregon. And on it went. Lazily, languidly, and with no regard for geographic accuracy, he mapped out my road trip with kisses.
When he finally reached my lips, our glasses clanked together like timpani drums. He didn’t say it, but I knew. In that overly air-conditioned bedroom, in that heavy red sweater, in our similarly prescribed eyeglasses, his lips were home.
PS. Joe proposed last week. I said yes.
Last month he celebrated his 90th birthday. Save for the cane he keeps by his blue recliner, Grandpa Ra isnt hearing impaired, memory impaired or anything impaired come to think of it.
He’s also three times the cook I’ll ever be.
A Brooklyn, N.Y. native, Grandpa Ra was a diehard Brooklyn Dodgers fan until Walter O’Malley moved the team to Los Angeles in 1958. In the years that followed, Grandpa Ra begrudingly rooted for The NY Mets.
Joe says he still hasn’t forgiven O’Malley for the move and when I asked Grandpa about it, he said, “Joe’s goddamn right.”
Agghht is Grandpa Ra’s favorite expression. He uses it to punctuate his frustration at the beginning of sentences. (And to mark his frustration at the end of sentences.) It’s an endearing conversation staple.
Joe laughed. Shook his head and walked into his parents’ house presumably to take a shower. Grandpa shrugged, made the agghht noise and turned his attention back to the TV presumably to the baseball game he’d been watching.
“So my sister Lori is traveling across country in a piece of shit car with her dog, sleeping in a tent and stopping in all the small towns. Does this sound familiar? I don’t know if you remember me ever talking about her. I think I may have mentioned once that you and her would get along great. Anyway, I’ve attached a couple emails that she has sent so far, I thought you might find them interesting. As I read them I found myself thinking about your trip. I hope everything is going good for you. Keep in touch. I want an autographed copy of your book when it’s on the best sellers list.”
I‘m frustrated and tired. I’m wringing my hands and drowning in the sound of Gordon Lightfoot. My pug is asleep next to me, with a pug baby clasped between his paws. He’s snoring, and I’m wearing Joe’s noise-canceling headphones.
On Mondays I usually plead with my fish Martha, whom I keep in a bowl on my desk, to finish writing my stories so I can write sentences that start with things like “… a man walked into a forest and stumbled into a clearing, where under the shade of a sycamore tree a redheaded woman was seated at a piano playing spy music.”